Stories of survival: Documentary ‘Surviving Home’ showing at Vail Film Festival | VailDaily.com

Stories of survival: Documentary ‘Surviving Home’ showing at Vail Film Festival

Jessica Smith
Special to the Daily

Saturday, April 7, is Robert Henline's Alive Day — the 11-year anniversary of the day he almost died.

While serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq, the Humvee Henline was in was struck by an improvised explosive device. Henline barely survived the blast that killed the other four soldiers in the vehicle with him, and the road to recovery has been long and difficult.

Saturday will also be Henline's third viewing of "Surviving Home," a documentary focusing on multiple generations of U.S. veterans and their stories of struggles and challenges faced integrating back into everyday life after their military service.

Connecting with civilian population

“(The way) this film is helping people is just seeing the stories and understanding veterans a little bit more, and connecting with people in their own communities. So that when civilians come to the screening, they can meet these people and hopefully that starts a little connection in each community.”Jillian MoulFilmmaker

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The idea for the documentary came to husband-and-wife filmmaking team Jillian and Matthew Moul just more than 10 years ago, as they were seeing news story after news story about American soldiers in Iraq. Not only were the soldiers in frightening combat situations, but they were coming home with severe injuries and trauma.

"They were also serving so many tours that it was just so, I think it was really burdensome on them and their families to just go through that over and over and over again," said Jillian Moul. "So all of that made us feel like, 'What can we do? We're civilians, we don't know any veterans. Well, let's go meet some.'"

They started interviewing family members who were also veterans, learning stories from their loved ones for the first time. Then they reached out to more — not only veterans of the recent war, but previous ones as well.

"We just thought that at the very least it would be good if there were more of a connection between the civilian population — all of us who are benefiting from the service of the men and women deployed," Matthew Moul said. "If there were at least a dialogue or a connection, or the sense that when people come back they're not alone."

'A Dialogue That Was Needed'

In 2008, the Mouls traveled to Washington, D.C., to begin their interviews. Matthew recalled one of their first presentations to a gathering of veterans at a retreat in uptown New York early in the project, seeking subjects for the documentary. He was a bit nervous.

"We had a lot of sensitivity and trepidation about whether veterans would want to open up to us," he said, "or whether they might in some way find it inappropriate that civilian filmmakers wanted to tell this story."

After their talk, they set up their cameras and waited. The veterans lined up, many of them ready and willing to share their stories.

"It turned out that — this was almost unfathomable to me — many of the veterans whom we interviewed were thankful that we were asking them these questions," Matthew said. "From my point of view, we were the ones who were thankful. It seemed that that was definitely a dialogue that was needed."

Over the next nine years, the Mouls traveled across the country, collecting interviews from veterans of wars from World War II to Vietnam and Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan. For the most part they funded the project themselves, traveling for the documentary on weekends and at various moments of spare time, while still working their regular jobs as film and television editors in Los Angeles.

Starting a Conversation

Vail is now the third showing of "Surviving Home," which premiered on Veteran's Day at the St. Louis International Film Festival, with more festival showings on the horizon.

In addition to the screenings, the Mouls have held Q-and-A sessions afterward. The sessions not only include themselves, but various invitees, including veterans both in the film and local, as well as local experts on veterans affairs and others that the Mouls feel will add to the conversation.

Because conversation is what it's all about.

"(The way) this film is helping people is just seeing the stories and understanding veterans a little bit more, and connecting with people in their own communities," Jillian said. "So that when civilians come to the screening, they can meet these people and hopefully that starts a little connection in each community. I think that if things happen, they have to happen on a grassroots level, with individuals."

In connecting civilians with veterans, and veterans with other veterans, the Mouls hope the film will add to the helpful steps of broadening the dialogue about veterans' issues, and lead others toward success in their journey. They hope to create connections between audience members and their communities, inspiring people to reach out, volunteer, meet and talk to each other.

Eye-Opening Experience

Henline said that the film captures his own journey throughout those nine years, "when no one else has done that." Throughout its course he changes physically — due to multiple surgeries, including skin grafts, as well as a follow-up on a commitment to fitness — and also mentally, such as a moment early on where he says that there's no way to fix post-traumatic stress disorder, a view he no longer holds.

In 2009, Henline began performing stand-up comedy as a way of dealing with his experiences not only in the war but upon arriving home as a visibly wounded veteran. He's used to sharing his stories in public and has received positive feedback from other veterans who've seen his show and had similar experiences and emotions.

He feels that "Surviving Home" also serves that purpose, not only for veterans but as an eye-opening experience for civilians.

"Every generation will get something out of it. Every story is a song," he said, and different people will appreciate the same song for different reasons. "It's educational for civilians and … it's also teaching the veterans."

The best part, he added, is that "in the film, you don't have just my story, you have all these stories," which will do their own part in helping others in a multitude of ways.

FILM SHOWING

“Surviving Home” will be showing twice at the film festival, and will include question-and-answer sessions. The first screening is on Saturday at 12:45 p.m. at CineBistro at Solaris. The second takes place Sunday at 1 p.m. also at CineBistro at Solaris. For more information about “Surviving Home” and other films this weekend, go to ww.vailfilmfestival.com.